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DNA Samples Bank Proposed For Future Investigations

February 1996

A strand of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) speaks volumes to biologists, physical anthropologists, and other natural scientists. Collecting the double helixes gives scientists a way to learn about organisms' evolution and the genetic variation within species (e.g., white and purple violets are variations in one species).

But no one knows what genetic questions will be most important 20 years from now when the samples are no longer available. A solution? Create a DNA bank.

The suggestion comes from scientists interested in the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP), whose goal is to study human genetic variation throughout the world. The project is being evaluated by the National Academy of Sciences. If approved, funding would be provided by both NSF and NIH. The HGDP scientists would not only do current field sampling, but would create a DNA bank to store samples.

"A DNA bank must accommodate all types of samples--recent and archival, living and nonliving--and it must be generic enough to accommodate as-yet-unthought questions that will dominate science in coming decades," says Penn State University anthropologist Ken Weiss, a lead organizer of the HGDP.

While the HGDP bank would focus on the human genome, the techniques being developed for the project "have a much broader application," says NSF's Lisa Brooks, program director of population biology. "You could use it on earthworms-or anything."

Brooks participated in Weiss' recent workshop on DNA analysis and storage. NSF uses such workshops as a way to direct funding towards the most effective technologies. In the DNA workshop, participants evaluated the four major systems being used today.

Their conclusion: Whenever possible, DNA should be transformed into cell lines. Cell lines allow DNA samples to be studied almost indefinitely.

However, cell line transformation works only on recent samples of DNA, says NSF's Mark Weiss (no relation to Ken Weiss), program director of physical anthropology and a workshop participant. Other advances in technology are needed for archival DNA. "For instance, there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of samples sitting in refrigerators around the world. If one could harvest DNA out of those samples, it would reduce the need to actually go out and get new samples."

While the workshop's focus was on technology, Brooks and Mark Weiss say it also brought together a disparate group of scientists, ranging from anthropologists to enzymologists.

"Initially it wasn't apparent what they had in common," says Brooks. "Yet once they got going, it was quite exciting."

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